Talking with Michelle Tea, Chronicler of Hip Young Dykes

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Books, Posts.

Writer and
performance artist Michelle Tea’s Valencia (Seal Press, 256 pages,
$13) is an hilarious, poignant and straight-shooting book that reads like an
HBO Undercover episode on hip young dykes in San Francisco. Not content
to preach only to the converted, however, Tea went on the road as a cofounder
of Sister Spit, a traveling girl-poetry road show that took the poetry reading
to a whole other level of performance. She’s currently touring again and
will be in New York this week.

Did you set
out to write a book?

No. I was writing
bunches of short stories, mainly to be read at open mics, so they had to be
kind of fast-paced and ideally funny, because it’s so good to hear people
cracking up in the audience while you’re sweating nervous on a stage. It
was later that I realized I had a collection of writing that could be chronologically
linked up into an actual book. The writing I’m working on now is different
in that I understand that it’ll probably be published at some point, so
I’m writing more for the page than the mic, and it’s so fun. I’m
less rushed, and take more time being descriptive and lyrical.

I know I don’t
want to be labeled solely a "gay" writer. I am a writer and my sexuality
is a separate thing. Plus I may turn into a lesbian one day. How do you feel
about being known as a gay writer?

I’m pretty
comfortable being known as a dyke writer–there aren’t tons of dykes
out there in print representing the tiny slice of scruffy dykeness that I write
about, so I think it’s important to be that, at least for Valencia.
I mean, the entire book is about my love affair with girls, with being a girl,
a queer girl, so it would be ridiculous for me to get upset about being referred
to as a dyke writer. Since I write about my life firsthand, my writing is very
much about my sexuality. The book I’m working on now is more about adolescence,
when sexuality, or at least my sexuality, was more nebulous and foggy, so it’s
not going to be such a gay book, which is fine as well.

Would you like
to have "mainstream" success, crossover?

Would I like
to cross over? I’d like as many people to read my book as possible, but
it’s probably expecting too much from mainstream culture to hope that they’d
be moved to pick it up and then get where I’m coming from. I think I may
have too much of a grimy underground slant to have the well-scrubbed masses
enjoy me. But who knows? I would certainly welcome it.

I heard you’re
working on a screenplay.

God, I’m
hesitant to discuss the screenplay project at all because there’s a very
good chance that I won’t see it through. It’s very much in the brainstorming
stages right now, and it’s a dark, weird and ideally funny film about a
group of goth kids, queer, hanging out together in the 80s. There’s much
drama and teenage mental illness, perverted sex and abuse of animals.

How did your
parents react to your writing?

My mother grabbed
my sister’s copy of my first book and burst into tears after reading only
a tiny bit. She thinks I portrayed her in a really ugly way, and it’s true
that I was very angry at her when I wrote it. But there is good stuff in it
too, I think, but she may not have read that far. She hasn’t read Valencia
and I doubt she ever will. I used to be very hurt that she didn’t ask about
my writing, or want to read it, and then she surprised me by asking for a chapter
from Valencia when I got the galleys back, and I totally freaked out
and couldn’t give it to her. I was like, oh, my mother and me have had
such a terrible past 10 years together and things have stabilized a bit, why
torture her with tales of my sexual and chemical excesses? But the book I’m
working on now is about my family, and she knows that and it upsets her, but
I’ve promised to be fair and balanced. It’ll still upset her. Like
most families, mine operates on a good dose of avoidance and denial, so it’s
always hard when someone starts getting real.

the question I dislike the most, so, I’ll turn it loose on you. How much
of Valencia is autobiographical?

I’ve written so far is pretty intensely autobiographic.

So then how
did all those ladies feel about being in it?

The people
I’ve written about are really good about it. I think I’ve only made
two enemies from it, which actually upsets me–one is a girl I like very
much, and I didn’t think I said anything terrible about her, but her hellos
have shrunk from big sloppy hugs to cold nods, so I imagine she wasn’t
happy. Also, an ex-girlfriend is insisting that everything I wrote about her
is lies. I do think I merged my own experience of her with stories I heard from
her later girlfriends, but it totally wasn’t intentional! I honestly thought
it had happened to me until I made myself think about it harder. But it still
did happen, if that means anything. I try to stick to my own truths, but memory
can be so tricky.

I am so excited to end up in a book. I get murdered in Dennis Cooper’s
Period and I am honored. Do you think folks you hang out with now have
concerns about you writing about them?

I’ve certainly
had people avoid me because they thought I was not so much pursuing a friendship
as I was scouting new material. My last girlfriend has forbidden me to write
anything about her at all. My present girlfriend, whom I’ve actually married,
can’t wait for me to write about her, and she doesn’t care if I say
terrible things about her or anything, which is so great and freeing that I
probably will write about her. I was terrified when the book came out that people
would hate me, because I am such a baby and really just want to be everyone’s
friend. But I’ve calmed down.

How is doing
readings outside San Francisco?

I do love to
read from it outside San Francisco, because then it’s just stories
and less loaded and people don’t dash up to me wanting to know who so-and-so

How do you
think the dot-com economy in San Francisco has changed the queer scene?

SF–I think it’s really fucked the queer scene up, the dot-com invasion.
It’s impossible to move to this city now without a trustfund or a good
job lined up, which means that poor kids who aren’t interested in a corporate
career have no place, and this used to be the place to come if you were
young and queer and against the system, and you wanted to do activism or art
or simply drink too much and have sex with lots of other queer kids. I hate
the gloss the dot-commers have brought to San Francisco.

In your book
you talk a few times about passing as a boy. Or girls you’re with doing
it to scam on gay guys, which I love. Have you done it a lot, and how does it

When I had
my head shaved sometimes people would mistake me for a boy, but just for a minute
’cause I have a really girlish face. But people really use hairdos as gender
indicators. I’m pretty girly, so I’ve never wanted to be a boy except
maybe to be a trannygirl, because skirts and dresses look so much better on
trannygirls because there’s this fantastic punch behind it. I’m occasionally
irked at myself for loving the traditional trappings of femininity as much as
I do. Also, I have longed to be like certain emaciated goth or rocker boys,
but it’s pretty fleeting.

What is the
traveling show like?

This road show,
the Wasted Motel Tour, is different from Sister Spit, the tour I’ve worked
on for the past four years. It’s much smaller, so I expect it to be less
chaotic, and it’s very tightly knit–the bunch of us are all good friends
and/or married to each other, so I expect it’ll be like a traveling family
vaudeville act.

I have so many
insane stories from my years with Sister Spit. The time I flung a jar of mustard
at some jock in Boston who was upset because Lynn Breedlove had pulled her cock
out of her pants, and one of the friends we’d made at the bar–a circus
performer–had taken out his teeth and was giving her a gumjob. We all almost
got killed that night. That was the night we lost the van, too, and I got very
hysterical about it, and when I found it the cops wouldn’t let me inside
because it was actually registered to my Spit partner Sini, not me. Then they
tried to arrest me for disturbing the peace. I was in a rainbow-spangled tube
top and I am just so sure they wanted to remove me from the state of Massachusetts.
They were extra hateful because of our California plates, and they thought I
was on drugs, but I’m from Massachusetts and kept thinking it would
somehow help to let them know that. So I kept screaming, "I’m from
Chelsea! I’m from Chelsea!" which actually made everything worse because
everyone in Massachusetts is such crazy townies, especially the cops, and this
was Cambridge, and they hate Chelsea. But I managed to avoid the clink, a strange
but blessed talent I have.

Does the audience
know what they’re getting, or do you win them over the hard way?

Usually we
perform in divey bars, and we have a way of really being charming and leveling
with the audience and winning their hearts, so even in places where the audience
was hostile, we usually ended up drinking beers with them afterwards. Except
for a couple of working-class dyke bars in Buffalo and Cleveland, those chicks
wanted to kill us. They thought we thought we were haughty academics because
we were reading poetry, which was super-sad because if they’d just calmed
down and listened, they would have heard that so much of what we all talk about
is being poor, being uneducated, struggling, shit they could really relate to.
Oh well.

Michelle Tea
and others appear this Thurs., Oct. 19, 7 p.m, at Bluestockings, 172 Allen St.
(betw. Rivington & Stanton Sts.), 777-6028.